Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant
Not until recently did I notice that not all the students read emails, people tend to neglect group text messages, and I know most of you will skip this blog post. But please don’t apply such non-reading strategies to your syllabus and assignment sheets. In contrast, I suggest you read the following two types of documents—syllabus and assignment sheets—very closely.
For this term, in addition to working at the University Writing Center, I also teach one first-year composition class. This double identity gives me a lens to observe students’ reading behaviors to the abovementioned two documents and the possible inconvenient consequences. When opening a writer’s Writing Center appointment form, I usually see a writing draft uploaded by the writer, but not often do I see the assignment sheet. Even though sometimes, writers copy and paste parts of the assignment requirements to the appointment form, as a Writing Center consultant, I still expect more information relevant to the writing tasks. The in-person consultations are fine, but situations can be less ideal if it is a Virtual Writing Center appointment for written feedback. Without assignment sheets or writing prompts as references, it is hard for Writing Center consultants to decide whether the writing projects address or deviate from the expected topics. In consequence, Writing Center consultants can only pay more attention to local issues, such as the mechanism within paragraphs, transitions, topic sentences, formatting, and language styles, while it is comparatively difficult for them to give feedback on higher-level concerns, such as thesis statements, or whether the organization or evidence employed in the draft address the requirements of the writing task.
In the very first class of the first-year composition courses, I led students to read the syllabus and discuss the assignment sheets. But we all forget things, and forgetting is a process that we need to fight against, so after a few weeks, I did not feel surprised to receive student submissions that failed to meet the requirements of the assignment sheets. Some of them missed the due time without emailing me for an extension; some submitted a Google Doc link while the assignment sheet specifically required a Microsoft Word document; some seldom followed the required MLA or APA styles, collaging the font choice, spacing, margins, and headers/title pages. From their performance, I know they did not revisit the assignment sheets closely before submitting the papers. If students choose not to read the assignment sheets even before the due time of submission, when will they read them?
According to the course description for ENG102, one of the learning outcomes is that students’ writing should “analyze the needs of an audience and the requirements of the assignment or task.” Reading syllabus and assignment sheets closely is one crucial step to approaching that learning outcome. In addition, the first-year composition classrooms might be the first chance (and sometimes, the last chance) for a writing instructor to explain in the most meticulous manner the significance of different writing conventions and how they work in college. It means some instructors teaching intermediate or advanced courses might suppose students know well the basics of academic writing since they have completed the first-year composition courses. However, in some cases, students can fail their expectations. If some do not learn enough composition knowledge, I do hope they at least learn some skills to conduct learning—to know where to look for the assigned composition requirements. In fact, within the syllabus and assignment sheets, we can always find the resources that instruct us on what we should do.
Why Should We Read the Syllabus
A syllabus might be less directly relevant to writing tasks, but it is a framing document for the whole course where we can find detailed information. For example, some instructors allow extensions, while others can be very strict on the time to submit assignments. According to the details in the class policies, students can predict what kind of assignment writing strategies they can employ before submitting their projects. For another example, most syllabi contain a section for assigned reading lists. When reading the class plan and the list of assigned readings, students can notice clues for the course design, and sometimes can get themselves better prepared for the class by reading the materials in advance. In addition to the course policies, some instructors include various university resources in their syllabi, and as far as I know, most students skip reading them. For sure, it is not necessary to read them closely. Just a kind reminder, if you encounter some difficulties and need assistance at the campus, besides using Google or ChatGPT to look for answers, your syllabus often contains more direct answers for what you need.
Why Should We Read Assignment Sheets
If a syllabus provides us with scaffolding instructions on what a course expects us to do, what assignment sheets offer is often something more practical and manageable. For a particular writing task, reading prompts from an assignment sheet can inform a writer what topic they should be attentive to, what arguments they might head to, and what evidence or examples they should prepare. Reading prompts is more like conducting a reading comprehension quiz. Sometimes, highlighting the key phrases in the prompts can be very helpful. From the highlighted keywords, we can always refer to our class readings and see if there are potential connections we can make so that we can transfer them into writing. The assigned reading materials sometimes are great sources when students need to include evidence or examples, and some instructors prefer seeing students doing so. Their preference lies in that instructors know the reading materials well and it is convenient for them to provide more engaging feedback. In addition, if the assignment has some particular formatting requirements, please guarantee your writing project follows them strictly. Prior to reading your writing content, instructors read your paper format first. The formatting details from your writing often lead instructors to take it for granted whether you are serious about your writing. As a side note, you can also find useful information about format editing from the webpage of the University Writing Center, including the most updated MLA, APA, and Chicago styles.
Don’t Read Your Assignment Sheet Alone
Now, I assume you will read your assignment sheet closely, highlighting the keywords and checking the specific formatting requirements. I also understand that after applying the close reading strategies, you might still be confused about the writing tasks. Don’t leave the confusion unresolved before you embark on your writing. In addition to reading alone, you should read your assignment sheets with other people. First and foremost, whenever you find something unclear that needs further explanations in the assignment, you can always make use of instructors’ office hours to raise your concerns. Reading with your instructor who is also the author of the assignment sheet is the most effective approach to untangling the confusion. Second, you can read with your classmates. In fact, when you read the assignment sheets with your peers, you are doing something more than teasing out the requirements of the assignment sheets, since you are working as a literacy community. Since you and your peers know a lot about the course context, when reading the assignment sheets, why don’t you brainstorm for the writing task? Everyone can roughly share their writing purposes, outlines, resources and even discuss some practical writing strategies to address instructors’ expectations for the writing projects. By listening to your peers’ writing plans, you can build and revise your writing plans, too. Finally, you are always more than welcome to read the assignment sheets with the University Writing Center consultants. And I highly suggest you do so when you make an appointment with us. All of the consultants are experienced graduate students and some of us have teaching experience. Based on your verbal descriptions about the project and the written requirements from the assignment sheets, we can offer constructive feedback addressing your project, and hopefully, we can help boost your confidence to help you become a better writer.
Reading syllabi and assignment sheets cultivates important professional reading skills. It is the prerequisite condition to writing, which requires specific responses to meet the requirements of different tasks. The reading activity entails responsibilities as a reader, a communicator, an executor, and a writer. As a responsible reader, you have to read the materials closely; as a reliable communicator, you are expected to talk to different parties to make sure you understand the tasks; as an executor, you have to make decisions on what to write and how to write it; and as a dedicated writer, you compose a writing product as a response to a series of specific requirements. So start your writing by reading the syllabus and assignment sheets.